A colleague and I originally wrote the below article for American Planning Associations: Sustainable Places blog. You can find it here.
As with many Latin American cities, Mexico City has had a long history of creating, renovating, and making the most of civic spaces.
Since prehispanic times, the city’s public spaces have played an integral role in its urban and economic structure. Large esplanades were spaces not only for recreation, but for transit, public markets, and religious ceremonies. The Spanish redesign of the city kept this social pattern alive, by constructing emblematic plazas and parks; public spaces integral to public life for more than five centuries.
Mexico City’s local government has recently put considerable effort in recovering this tradition by establishing a Public Space Authority (AEP in Spanish) in 2008, a one-of-a-kind institution whose main purpose is to plan and manage the cities varied open spaces. AEP has since focused on and invested considerable resources in the renovation of the city’s most important public spaces, which had been negated decades prior.
While Mexico City’s recently renovated plazas are extremely popular and beautiful in design, the current administration realized that much of the city’s communities do not have close access to quality public spaces. This lack of public life entails a missed opportunity for safe, healthy, and productive lifestyles, and a serious problem of road and public safety. Thus, AEP has shifted their focus to an innovative strategy that is focused on renovating small public spaces citywide.
The top-down mandate dependent on bottom-up solutions, “Public Pocket Park Strategy,” has been concurrent with EMBARQ Mexico’s interest in promoting the creation of a network of public spaces that can feed the city’s expanding public transit systems. However, given the scale and nature of these projects, something was evidently lacking: community involvement.
What is Human Centered Design?
In 2012 EMBARQ Mexico was the recipient of the APA Energy and Climate Partnership of Americas grant. EMBARQ Mexico was selected for its innovative pilot project that sought to improve Mexico City’s deficit of public space through pocket parks while simultaneously serving as a case study for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) strategies. The purpose of the project is to improve the quality of life for residents, act as a platform to trigger public life, and make more walkable and attractive spaces.
As part of this grant EMBARQ Mexico has been leading a multi-stakeholder effort to ensure the pocket park design process is guided by a set of tools based in a methodology called Human Centered Design (HCD). HCD is unique in that the creative method begins directly with the people who you are designing for. All assumptions of a community are left behind and instead we seek to understand the needs, behaviors, and dreams of the community that will be impacted by the project. Once we understand what the community desires we continue to engage them by having them actively participate in the development of tangible solutions.
This process may seem laborious and time consuming, but time and time again, we have found that involving the community from the beginning actually saves huge amounts of money and time, and leads to more sustainable solutions. Here are five reasons why:
Ideas: One principle that is important to acknowledge when using methods such as HCD, is that the experts of the community are the community members themselves. Often as technical professionals, we are simply playing the role of a facilitator. They understand the needs of the community more than any outside observer could, because they live and work in it every day. Often what was missing was the space and platform to do that. HCD allows for that.
Because of this they are able to create some incredible and creative solutions to their own problems. One excellent example is the “Lombribancas” project, found at Mexico City’s La Condesa. Neighbors and community organizations appropriated a small part of a median to install compost benches and spice-gardens that not only embellishes the previously unoccupied space, but also provides local resources for nearby restaurants.
Money: In the various projects involving HCD, we have seen that the best solutions are the most simple and straightforward solutions involving little resources. One of Mexico City’s most recent public space solutions involves the creation of “Park-Es,” a parklet that sits on top of a small truck bed and can be deployed in any two parking spots of a street. Although the project is dependent in a strong initial investment by a Community Organization, its long-term benefits easily surpass them.
Time: Because the solutions are extracted directly from the community, we already know the community supports them. This allows for rapid implementation with community help during the construction process. For example, La Cuadra A.C. is an established civic organization that has supported various community-centered projects around central Mexico City. Their projects are frequently cheap to build (because of the strategic collaborations they form) and quick to implement, some of them taking place over the span of a single weekend.
Democracy: The process is a true representation of democracy at all levels. Rather than having an outside entity come in and build a space with little input, we are instead promoting a participatory process. We are sourcing opinions and ideas from the many and letting everyone have an equal voice during the planning process. This builds trust with the community, which is critical to the acceptance of a particular project. The community has been made aware of the endeavor from the beginning, and so they are more likely to champion the final product and future endeavors by your organization. They know their voice will be heard and their opinions seriously considered.
Sustainability: What is most important in any public space project is that the space continues to thrive and be used by the community long after the ribbon cutting. When a community has been involved in the development of the space from day one, the sense of pride and responsibility to keep it clean and usable is substantial. For example the pocket park of Mercado of Medellin in the neighborhood of Condesa was selected as an ideal location because the restaurant it borders had committed to the daily cleanup of the park. They knew having that public space would attract more space and ultimately be good for their business.
In many respects, Mexico City’s Public Pocket Park Strategy is so innovative that it has no clear precedent. On the one hand, Mexican local governments are unaccustomed with combining planning and community outreach endeavors, sometimes having no experience in community participation, as is the case with the Public Space Authority. We believe that pocket parks are a perfect testing ground for the development of new tools and methodologies, such as HCD, that actively engage communities and coalesce local interests and efforts.
The main outcome of the Public Pocket Park Strategy (community engagement in the design process) should go farther than the renovation of public spaces, and also train key stakeholders in these specific types of methodologies. Thus, EMBARQ Mexico and APA hosted a two-day HCD workshop for various stakeholders involved in the pocket park initiative. These stakeholders included technical, legal, and community experts from both Mexico City’s Delegations (local authorities) and its ministries of Urban Development, Environment and Road & Transit. By the end of the second day, participants had seen case studies from all around the world of innovative, but simple and easily replicable, public space projects that were based in the principles of HCD. Additionally, participants walked away with concrete HCD tools and activities they could immediately adopt and infuse into their current work.
APA and EMBARQ’s final deliverable for the grant is set to be a toolkit for community participation in small-scale urban projects.
We believe that the Public Pocket Park Strategy is a long-term endeavor that could quickly pick up steam in Mexico City, with the potential of rapid scalability nation-wide. A network of small public spaces can be substantially quicker and cheaper to build and can potentially encourage sustainable mobility throughout the city, encouraging walking, biking, and social interaction. If the strategy proves to be successful, a network of community-endorsed, economically viable pocket parks can lead to a higher quality of life for its residents and a more resilient and sustainable city.
APA would also like to thank our technical experts in this project who have provided ongoing support and guidance: T. Luke Young (Architecture for Humanity), Jesus Porras (Architecture for Humanity), and Luis Saenz Garcia (Independent Consultant)
If you are interested in learning more about APA’s work in Mexico contact us through APA’s Sustainable and Inclusive Housing and Community Development Program homepage.
The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Urban Planning Initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of State and led by APA. This initiative supports Latin American and Caribbean based planning projects geared towards addressing the challenges presented by climate change. The ECPA Urban Planning Initiative supports local projects that help Latin American and Caribbean cities to become more energy efficient, economically robust, and equitable; furthering these urban environments’ resiliency to climate change. Learn more atwww.planning.org/international/ecpa/.
Katalina Mayorga is a contractor with APA working on ECPA II as the project coordinator for the CTS-Mexico grant. Claudio Sarmiento is the CTS-EMBARQ project lead for the ECPA II grant that was awarded to them in 2012.
Image: Mexican government officials and community members participate in a Human Centered Design Training hosted by APA and CTS-EMBARQ. Photo by Luis Saenz Garcia.